Countdown to the first Test: Enigmas from the East

Brilliant one day, disastrous the next, Pakistan have the ability to dazzle and confound in equal measure. As they prepare to take on England, Angus Fraser celebrates the most enduring conundrum in cricket

Australia may be the most powerful team on the planet and India the richest but it is Pakistan who continually produce the game's most naturally gifted cricketers. When Pakistan walk out to play, spectators watch because there is the belief that something special could be about to happen.

In an era when coaches attempt to control a player's every move Pakistan's cricketers still live on the edge. Nobody, not even their coach, Bob Woolmer, has the faintest clue how they will fare on any given day. When the mood is right he knows they are capable of producing the most absorbing and breathtaking cricket imaginable. But he is also aware of how ghastly it can be when it goes wrong.

Pakistan also carry baggage. Their players are not the only ones who are believed to have been involved in match-fixing, ball tampering and chucking, yet these controversies adhere to them most of all.

But there is more to Pakistan cricket than the odd brown paper bag, stray fingernail and bent arm. Far, far more. Pakistan produce more naturally gifted cricketers than any other country and, when the mood is right, play the most absorbing and breathtaking cricket in the world.

During the course of the past 15 years England have been on the receiving end when this rich and endless vein of talent has been at its best. It is 24 years since England defeated Pakistan in a home Test series, but of all the powerful images it is the sight of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis hurtling in and bowling reverse-swing yorkers at will in 1992 that created the greatest impression.

When faced with bowlers who are capable of propelling a cricket ball at more than 90 mph batsmen tend to search the dressing-room for upper body protection, but against these two toe-guards became the vogue. Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart, England's opening pair during the nineties, played more than 50 Test matches against the West Indies when Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop were in their pomp, but both admit that it was the prospect of facing Wasim and Waqar that gave them sleepless nights.

As English stumps were flattened by the ferocious onslaught, allegations of ball-tampering emerged. I am sure the odd fingernail did come in contact with the surface of a cricket ball, as it has throughout the history of the game, but Pakistan's fast bowlers, by playing on dry, flat, hard, lifeless pitches had, through their nous, developed a new and effective way of swinging a cricket ball.

Sarfraz Nawaz, the former Pakistan seamer, invented the technique in the Seventies when he found that the ball swung the other way when he kept one side dry and rough and the other wet. Initially, Sarfraz was reluctant to pass his findings on, but Imran Khan coaxed it out of him in the Eighties and it has been passed on from one generation of Pakistan fast bowlers to the next.

The success these methods brought turned the art into a taboo subject and it was considered by many - mainly batsmen - as a blot on the game. Yet isn't it amazing how people's views have changed following last summer's Ashes success, when England's fast bowlers used reverse swing with devastating effect to defeat Australia. No longer was it a prohibited area. It suddenly became a legitimate tactic expertly used by our brave boys.

The bowler in me feels that the ball is my property and that, within reason, I should be able to do what I like to it. I accept that I cannot stand at the end of my run-up with a Swiss Army knife in my hand ripping chunks of leather out of it, but what harm does a little scratch do? After all fielders and captains have been getting away with putting illegal substances - sun-cream, Vaseline, lip balm and sugar-enhanced saliva caused by sucking sweets - on a cricket ball for decades. But there is one reason why ball tampering is viewed as it is, and that is because it works.

The retirement of Wasim and Waqar would have created an unfillable void for most countries but Pakistan, in the form of Shoaib Akhtar, have continued to produce high-quality fast bowlers. England's batsmen will be thankful not to see Shoaib in this series after the ankle injury he sustained during the winter ruled him out of the tour.

Even without Shoaib, the Pakistan side contains several world-class cricketers but he is by far the most colourful. On England's pre-Christmas tour of Pakistan he was irresistible, taking 17 wickets in three Tests. Once again - why are there always cries of foul play when England play Pakistan? - there were mutterings of dodgy actions and throwing as his intelligent mix of hostility and beautifully disguised slower balls took Pakistan to a 2-0 series win.

Now that reverse swing has been accepted as legitimate the attention of batsmen has turned to chucking. Martin Crowe, the former New Zealand batsman, used Tuesday's Cowdrey lecture as a vehicle to have a snipe at Muttiah Muralitharan, and I am sure he doubts the legitimacy of Shoaib's action. But who would you rather watch play cricket: Shoaib with all his élan and theatre, or a bog-standard seamer like New Zealand's Chris Martin nagging away outside off-stump? Bog standard is something Pakistan do not do as Rana Naved-ul-Hasan has shown during two stints with Sussex. The loss of Naved-ul-Hasan, who picked up a groin injury playing for Sussex during the early part of the season, is a blow but Pakistan have other capable fast bowlers.

England's batsmen know quite a bit about Mohammad Asif after the lanky seamer took 10 wickets against them during a pre-Test warm-up match in Pakistan. On the back of this performance the 23-year-old was rushed into the Test side where he made an immediate impact, taking 25 wickets in his initial five Test appearances. An elbow injury will keep him out of the first Test, though he is likely to return for the remaining three.

Mohammad Sami is an exciting fast bowler, too. His Test record is ordinary but his inconsistency epitomises Pakistan cricket. When he gets it right he can be a real handful and his spell of bowling with Shoaib at Lord's during a one-day international in 2003 was as fast as any the ground will have seen. Umar Gul is the closest Pakistan come to an English-style seamer, but even he hits the bat harder than you think.

Once through the seamers England then have to negotiate the leg-spin of Danish Kaneria. Kaneria's class is highlighted by the fact that Pakistan can afford to leave out Mushtaq Ahmed. Kaneria cannot bat and his fielding is in the class of Monty Panesar, but he will be a potential match-winner on the turning pitches of Old Trafford and The Oval.

The absence of Shoaib and Naved-ul-Hasan weakens the tourists' bowling but the batting will be at full strength. And with three of their players featuring in the top seven of the world rankings it is a batting line-up to behold. Inzamam-ul-Haq, the Pakistan captain, will offer his side ballast. There are more dynamic batsmen in world cricket but, at this moment in time, there are few better. Like Shoaib he was magnificent before Christmas, scoring 431 runs against England at an average of more than 100 in five visits to the crease.

Controlling Pakistan's cricketers, both on and off the field, has been a challenge but, under Inzamam's leadership, Shaharyar Khan's presidency and Bob Woolmer's coaching, cricket in Pakistan is currently stable. Inzamam has the total respect of his players and they are now playing as a team.

Younis Khan is one of the most elegant batsmen in the world while Mohammad Yousuf has a special talent, and the only area where Pakistan seem to be vulnerable is at the top of the order. Since the retirement of Saeed Anwar they have tried a number ofX different combinations and they are yet to find one that works. Salman Butt performed admirably against England but he had a poor tour of India and subsequently lost his place. Imran Farhat claimed it and he will open with Shoaib Malik today.

Watching Pakistan play is always a joy. Woolmer has done an excellent job in adding a certain amount of discipline to their cricket but it is the raw, naïve way in which they play that draws you to them.

Over the next two months their fanatical fans will witness incidents that would not look out of place on a school playground but on other occasions it will be absolutely breathtaking. Cricket has had to wait for its chance to shine this summer but there is every chance that England's opponents will make the wait worthwhile.

Three Pakistani dangermen likely to pose greatest threat to England's chances in series

Shahid Afridi

With Shoaib Akhtar injured, Afridi, 26, is the man to watch. The attacking all-roundergrabbed the headlines in November when he scuffed up the pitch in Faisalabad. Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen are Sunday drivers compared to Afridi, who has a strike-rate - runs per 100 balls - of 86 in Tests and 108 in one-dayers. He also bowls more than useful leg-spin

Danish Kaneria

Kaneria's leg-spin is not yet in the league of Shane Warne or Anil Kumble but he is not far behind, averaging four and a half wickets a Test. The 25-year-old has developed consistency and accuracy during two stints with Essex. Height and high action gets him bounce and he bowls a great googly

Kamran Akmal

The presence of Akmal will do little to ease the pressure on England's gloveman Geraint Jones. The Pakistan keeper is a gifted cricketer who has already posted seven international hundreds. Three of these were scored in four innings against England before Christmas

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